Recent events in Ukraine, Syria, and Iran exposed once again a deep divide in American policymakers’ approach to world affairs. President Obama hails his determined diplomacy as the vindicator of events, bringing Iran and Syria to the negotiating table and isolating Russia for practicing 19th-century military intervention in Ukraine. Throughout, Obama keeps the potential use of force under, if not off, the table, ruling out any military options until negotiations fail.
His critics argue just as strenuously that Obama’s diplomacy does little more than buy time for aggressive nations like Iran and Russia to accomplish their objectives outside negotiations by military force. In this view, negotiations without strength enfeeble American diplomacy, unmask America’s military impotence and encourage precisely the kind of aggression that Russia engages in today in Crimea.
These disagreements over the goals, phasing, and interconnectedness of force and diplomacy have divided American strategists for decades. Internationalists, exclusively labeled liberal, have long believed that foreign policy is largely a matter of goodwill, patience, and persistent cooperation with other states to achieve common and ambitious aims of multilateral decision-making, economic globalization, non-proliferation, promotion of human rights, and the spread of freedom. If countries do not play by the rules, the world community can isolate them diplomatically and impose economic sanctions. But the use of military force while negotiations are going on is ill-advised, even if the other side uses force, because it only exacerbates distrust and impedes agreement. Force is a “last” resort and then only with multilateral consent. Liberal internationalism promises to accomplish a lot through diplomacy at very little military cost.
Nationalists and realists, on the other hand, usually considered conservatives, are more willing to back diplomacy with force. But they pursue much less ambitious diplomatic aims. Nationalists generally limit their aims to defense, usually after an attack, because up to that point they count on other states to balance power in their own regions. After all, other countries care about their security more than anyone else, and, generally speaking, if America takes care of itself and stays out of their affairs, they will take care of themselves and stay out of our affairs.
Realists are less certain that balancing occurs automatically, and believe that the United States has to deter hegemons in other regions because those hegemons, if they emerge, are more likely to attack America in its own region. During the Cold War, realists led the campaign for containment of Soviet hegemony using U.S. boots on the ground in Europe and Asia. In the absence of the Soviet threat, however, and after debilitating wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, many realists no longer advocate forward containment. They call instead for an offshore balancing strategy that positions U.S. forces on the high seas over the horizon. Even if potential regional hegemons such as Iran acquire nuclear weapons, the United States may be better off containing them than using military force on the ground to stop their nuclear programs. Realists are willing to incur more military costs, but their goals, namely the balance of power in distant regions, do not inspire sustained support from most Americans. In 1991 President George H.W. Bush fought a hugely successful realist war to restore Kuwaiti sovereignty in the face of Iraqi aggression, but the American people voted him out of office 18 months later.
The tug of war between these approaches tends to produce swings in American foreign policy and public opinion over time. The desire to achieve ambitious aims inspires far-reaching initiatives both on the Left, as with Obama’s omnipresent diplomacy, and on the Right, as with George W. Bush’s appeal to end tyranny in every nation and culture. Nationalism and realism then counsel retreat and more modest but uninspiring goals. America overreaches and then withdraws, hoping that other democracies will step up and shoulder the burden. But the bad guys, not the good guys, usually step up. Iran and Russia expand their influence in the Middle East, and North Korea and China rattle the sword in Asia and the Pacific. The balance of power tilts toward tyranny, and America once again becomes a target of future attack. Terrorists may be training today in Syria who will attack America or its interests tomorrow.
What can be done to break this unfortunate cycle? A third way is possible. It combines the best of the existing approaches and leaves the worst on the cutting-room floor. It seeks to improve the world system and spread freedom, as liberal internationalism does; it uses, but disciplines, force with priorities and compromise, as realism does; and it does not surrender control to international institutions but preserves American sovereignty, as nationalism does. It is an internationalist approach but with conservative brakes—a conservative rather than a liberal internationalism.
First, conservative internationalism insists on promoting freedom, not just balancing power. It embraces the view that America is an idea, not just a place defined by territory or shared culture. That was true even at its Founding, when America was largely British and Protestant; and it is undeniable today, when its population increasingly mirrors the rainbow cultures of the world. If culture made America, America would still be British; rather, it was ideology, a relentless, contentious commitment to advance both liberty and equality. And with time America learned that it cannot improve on these goals at home without also pursuing them abroad. When the United States waged the Cold War in the name of freedom, it made more progress on civil rights at home than ever before. When it withdrew from the world in the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan peaked at four million members, some 30,000 of whom, wearing white sheets and masks, marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in 1925 in a blizzard of bigotry.
But the United States cannot promote freedom everywhere at once. George W. Bush’s exhortation “to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world” was inspiring but plainly Pollyanna-ish. The United States needs some kind of filter to modulate its fight for freedom in the world.
Enter the realists. They insist that there be a significant threat to the material well-being of America before the U.S. government gets actively involved on another country’s behalf; otherwise, America stays home, enjoys its own freedom and lets other countries develop theirs if they wish. So if Syria’s civil war, Russia’s intervention in Ukraine or China’s island aggression in Asia poses a threat, realists ask how. For some realists, there is no threat until we are attacked, as we were from Afghanistan. For others, there is no threat unless our access to oil or some other critical raw material is impeded, a principal motivation for George H.W. Bush’s war in Kuwait. For still others, there is no threat until a hegemon threatens to emerge in another region, the principal concern today with Iran in the Middle East, Russia in the former Soviet zone, and China in the Pacific.
Realists are little concerned, however, with freedom abroad. They prioritize stability and peace, which in the short run, they believe, are harmed rather than helped by efforts to champion the Syrian opposition, Iranian dissidents, or Ukrainian resisters. They start in the right direction but they stop too soon. It is never enough just to preserve stability, because despots are the primary cause of violence within and across borders. Stabilizing their interventions today just sets up another opportunity for them to aggress again tomorrow. Weakening them and strengthening democracy, therefore, is the only effective way to reduce violence in world affairs over the longer run. A neighborhood of democracies is much safer than one of despots. There is no specific timetable for this transition, but there is also no doubt that it is the driving purpose of American foreign policy.
Over the years, more liberal internationalists and realists have grasped this point. During the Cold War, neoconservatives emerged to decry the lack of military muscle in America’s détente policy. They were not realists, because they cared about freedom abroad, and they were not liberal internationalists, because they valued the use of military strength during negotiations. Like Senator Scoop Jackson and President Ronald Reagan, they called for a more assertive use of force to weaken the Soviet Union. After the Cold War, realists emerged, like Charles Krauthammer and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, to argue that military muscle had to serve a more significant purpose than just momentary stability. They called for a realism aimed at abetting democracy (“democratic realism”) and a military policy that “tilts the balance of power toward freedom.”
Today, both neocons and democratic realists warn that Iran is achieving its objectives by force and outside negotiations, marching steadily toward a nuclear capability, and expanding its influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Gaza. Russia is doing the same in Georgia and now Ukraine, and China too on the high seas in the Pacific. Meanwhile, America negotiates and refrains from using force until negotiations fail. The result: While negotiations continue, the balance of power outside negotiations tips steadily toward Iran and its patrons in Moscow and Beijing.
Connecting freedom and force can be costly, however. After two decade-long wars, each with arguably little to show for all the cost in blood and treasure, the American public has little stomach for further military interventions. Look at the opposition in Congress on both Left and Right to the proposed “unbelievably small” military strike against Syria, or to U.S. and NATO military intervention in Ukraine. Yet freedom and force can be linked if policymakers set clear priorities. Again, realists can be helpful. They set priorities for balancing power by way of geopolitics: focus on the major powers, not all powers. Conservative internationalism sets priorities for spreading freedom by geo-ideology: focus on freedom where it counts the most, namely on the borders of existing free countries.
There are three such borders in today’s world, two primary and one secondary. The primary ones lie between the free countries of Europe and an increasingly authoritarian Russia, and between the free countries of Asia—Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and India—and communist China and North Korea. The secondary one lies between democratic Israel and its autocratic and theocratic neighbors. (The latter is secondary in the sense that freedom is scarcer, more fragile, and harder to achieve in the Middle East than it is in Europe or Asia.)
When countries on these borders are threatened, America is threatened. Why? Because as the specter of tyranny moves closer to the core of the democratic world, the world becomes a less hospitable place. The border of freedom recedes, and the violent presence of despotism swells. That was the case in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, where instability threatened to spill over into Slovenia, Austria, and Hungary; and it is the case today in Ukraine or Turkey, where Russian troops and the Syrian conflict endanger stability and freedom in Eastern Europe and Israel. In such cases, the United States not only counterbalances material threats (for example, ensures that Russia does not repeat its interventions in Ukraine and Georgia) but stays for the long haul to pull these border countries toward democracy. It does so not by military occupation and civilian reconstruction but by exploiting powerful nearby free markets and democratic alliances. Think of the role the European Union and NATO played to secure freedom in Eastern Europe after the Cold War and potentially play today in Ukraine and Turkey. By working from inside out where freedom already exists, the prospects of spreading freedom are greater and the costs more defensible.
In countries remote from the borders of existing free countries, the United States deals with material threats but does not stick around to promote democracy. It gets in and out as quickly as possible, putting another government in power that will not attack America again in the short term. It subordinates democracy promotion, not because these countries are necessarily unfit for democracy but because they are not first in line for democracy. Thus, priority for democracy promotion goes to Turkey and Ukraine, next to Europe, not to Iraq; to Pakistan, next to India, not to Afghanistan; to Taiwan and South Korea, next to Japan, not to Burma or Mongolia; and to Jordan, Egypt, and, yes, Syria, next to Israel, not to Libya or the Persian Gulf states.
In the past decade, the United States has done just the opposite. To defeat terrorism, it intervened massively in remote regions, principally Afghanistan and Iraq, and stayed to promote democracy. Meanwhile, it neglected democracy where it is most important, on the borders of existing free countries. Ukraine fell under greater Russian influence and now invasion, Turkey was weakened by U.S. actions in Iraq and inaction in Syria, Egypt succumbed to the Muslim Brotherhood and then again to military rule; Pakistan was destabilized by U.S. policy in Afghanistan; and U.S. allies in Asia were increasingly threatened by Chinese muscle-flexing in the East and South China Seas. But is intervention still worth it, even in high-priority border countries? More and more Americans think it is not.
Enter the nationalists. They argue with increasing vehemence that the United States should stay out of foreign conflicts. They aim for a more modest level of involvement, for a foreign policy that preserves national sovereignty and a strong defense, not one that strengthens international institutions and keeps U.S. troops in rich allied countries indefinitely. All the major industrial allies are now durably democratic. They interact peacefully and can do vastly more to help themselves and others than was the case when the major U.S. alliance systems formed after World War II. Many conservative Americans, especially libertarians, like the idea of individuals and nations taking care of themselves and being left alone as long as they do not harm their neighbors. They champion limited government or self-government both at home and abroad. Nationalists may be dubious about spreading freedom, certainly by current methods of nation-building, but they understand that the safe, decentralized world of sovereign nation-states that they champion can only be peaceful if freedom spreads.
This kind of conservative endgame recognizes the desire of other nations to find their own way and preserve their own uniqueness. It reminds us that the purpose of international cooperation, like the purpose of domestic government, is not to usurp the national or personal responsibility of others but to help them attain their independence and self-realization. A third way is more comfortable with a world of less tidy outcomes and more give and take.
So what would a third way look like today in Syria? It would start by acknowledging the material threat to Israel (existential) and the United States (oil, terrorism), which is clearly greater in Syria than it was in Libya. It would aim to weaken despots in Damascus, not uphold a chemical weapons ban that strengthens Assad in the short run and does nothing to slow the killing. It would arm the moderate rebels because the other side is arming Assad, and it would acknowledge that you can’t replace Assad unless you know with whom you want to replace him. It would recognize that on this secondary border of freedom, democracy is at best a long-term prospect. It would negotiate compromises with Assad and eventually a replacement government that trade off sanctions for permanent access to Syrian society—for example, converting UN chemical weapons inspections (assuming the chemical weapons are destroyed) to monitoring relief aid in Syria, or linking sanction relief to the increased presence of foreign NGOs, including foreign investment, operating inside Syria. Over time Syria can be opened up and later democratized, much the way the Helsinki Accords opened up and eventually moderated communist control in Eastern Europe.
How about in Iran? Once again, start with the military threat to Israel and American oil in the region, which are even more substantial than in the case of Syria, but don’t stop there and accept containment. Instead, push back during negotiations by keeping residual forces in Afghanistan, rebuilding a military relationship with Iraq, and arming the Syrian moderates. Aim in negotiations for compromise, not surrender or instant democracy, trading off a civilian nuclear program for opening Iranian society and economy that over time weakens despotic institutions.
And what about Ukraine? The threat to U.S. defense is the hollowing out of NATO, and the threat to Western freedom is the most substantial since Soviet tanks repressed freedom in Poland in 1981. On the other hand, as Reagan understood in 1981, the mistake is not to negotiate with Russia but to negotiate from weakness, to give up too much, too early, for too little. The United States abandoned the missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic before reset negotiations even began, excluded tactical nuclear weapons from the New Start Treaty (weapons that are of some importance today in Ukraine), and failed to continue to press NATO partnerships for Georgia and Ukraine. All of that was done to buy Russian help to extricate U.S. forces from Afghanistan (an important but short-term goal) and to bring the Russians on board for some marginal (not crippling) sanctions on Iran.
So what to do now? Help the Ukrainian economy and rally NATO military defenses in the Baltic states and Poland. If Russia marches into western Ukraine, yes, there is little the United States can do militarily, just as there was little the United States could do militarily in Poland in 1981. So learn from Ukraine as Reagan did in Poland. When Defense Secretary Weinberger told Reagan that the United States had few military options in Poland, Reagan replied: “Yes I know, Cap, but I never want to be in that position again.” Meanwhile, offer the Russians positive alternatives if they recalibrate their policies in the near abroad: more industrial and economic cooperation (they will need it when oil prices collapse, as they did in 1985, sinking the Soviet Union), more transparency of NATO activities, and further arms control measures that include tactical nuclear weapons and joint work on missile defenses.
Is there a slippery slope here, a risk that using a little force now could drag America into a bigger war later? Perhaps, but there is a bigger risk to doing nothing. Moreover, the use of force is not intended to “win” but to provide the backdrop against which to negotiate a better agreement. Right now only one side is using force, the despots—and that, too, is a prescription for a bigger war later. Agreements negotiated from weakness do not last. In present tensions in the Middle East, Ukraine and the Far East, Syria, Iran, Moscow, and Beijing are increasing their military gains; eventually, America will get yanked back into a conflict in one or more of these areas at much higher military cost.
Conservative internationalism offers a third way in Syria, Iran, and Ukraine that pursues the goal of defending and spreading freedom but disciplines that goal by prioritizing freedom on the borders of existing free countries, not in remote regions. It uses less military force, sooner, to avoid the use of larger amounts later, and deploys military leverage to erode the hold of despots but not to force them into unconditional surrender, which then invariably means unconditional nation-building that is expensive and often difficult to pull off. This approach may not always be appropriate. But it seems particularly appropriate at the present time, as Americans indulge once again in the cycle of diplomatic overreach and military retreat.